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Strange Graffiti. By Jared Booth.


Some strange graffiti started to appear in the village some summers ago – on the walls of shops, and schools, and houses, and under the newly-built railway bridge that leads into the town. Unlike a lot of the other graffiti in the village, it contained no obscenities, no insults, no boasts, and no rugby teams. ralph loves ethel was all it said, and then the letters T, L, and F joined into one – the familiar sign of “true love forever.”

Its first known appearance was on the wall of Tilda Warbuck’s house. She was hanging her washing out on Monday morning when she spotted it – ralph loves ethel, tlf in surprisingly neat yellow spraypaint. Tilda phoned the police, and twenty minutes later PC Balding – a cheerful, bowling-pin-shaped officer – came to investigate. The first thing that struck PC Balding was the name of the culprits: they weren’t the kind of names he was used to seeing daubed in graffiti. He asked Tilda some routine questions and said he would call the council and get them to remove the graffiti. Tilda was very thankful. “It’s a great weight off me mind,” she said.

The next day the graffiti appeared again, on the door of Pete Shackleton’s council flat. Pete Shackleton was “known to the police,” as the saying goes, having been arrested a few times for being drunk and disorderly, and once for impersonating a policeman. PC Balding again went to investigate, and as far as he could tell the graffiti was identical – ralph loves ethel, tlf in the same neat yellow spraypaint. He asked Pete some routine questions and said he would call the council and get them to remove the graffiti. Pete took a swig from his can of Skol and told him not to bother. “I’ll phone the twats meself,” he said.

The day after that, on the wall of the local school, the graffiti made its third known appearance. The headmaster, Mr Burton, spotted it whilst whistling his way through the playground, and after conducting a stern assembly about the illegality and anti-social nature of graffiti, he called the police. Again PC Balding went to investigate, and again, as far as he could tell, the graffiti was identical. He asked Mr Burton some routine questions and said he would call the council and get them to remove the graffiti. Mr Burton assured him there was no need, saying he would get some of the kids to remove it that afternoon. “There’ll be a lesson in it for them,” he said, “somewhere.”

By this time the graffiti, and the unknown culprits, had started to perplex PC Balding greatly. Most graffiti-artists are teenagers, but Ralph and Ethel didn’t sound like a pair of teenagers: they sounded more like an elderly couple, and PC Balding couldn’t for the life of him imagine an elderly couple going round daubing graffiti on other people’s property. He asked his colleagues if they were aware of any youngsters in the village named either Ralph or Ethel, but none of them were. That night he asked his friends the same question, and was given the same answer. So he went to bed none the wiser.

The next morning the graffiti seemed to be everywhere. PC Balding walked through the town on his way to work and must have seen it at least twenty times, in a variety of different places – sometimes on its own, and sometimes nestled in amongst the more run-of-the-mill graffiti PC Balding was used to seeing – and each time he saw it he felt his heart give a little shudder, as though there was something sinister about it. He even mentioned it to Sergeant Barraclough when he got to the station, but Sergeant Barraclough said he had more important things to worry about than graffiti. He recommended that PC Balding get the council to remove it, and then forget all about it. So PC Balding called the council, and by the end of the day all traces of the graffiti had been removed.

The next day, walking through town, PC Balding didn’t see one sign of the graffiti. This, if anything, perplexed him more than it pleased him, and he arrived at work feeling a little let-down. All day long he expected a call from someone complaining about graffiti; but the call never came. As suddenly as the graffiti had appeared, it had vanished. At six o’clock he left the station and started his walk home. Halfway there he decided to call in at The Butcher’s Legs, where he sat down with a pint of lager and the local newspaper. He never read the obituaries, so he didn’t see the notice thanking the family and friends of Ralph and Ethel Muntley for attending their funeral on Sunday – a day before the graffiti started appearing. In fact, it wasn’t until a month later, a few days after his own funeral, when the words “PC Balding woz ere” suddenly started to appear around the village, that he finally managed to solve the mystery. But by that time, of course, he had become a part of it himself.


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